Many of us have to regularly speak in public at a range of events large and small, public and private, staged and ad-hoc. As your career progresses you will find yourself speaking in front of many different types of audiences. Doing this reasonably well is important. Doing this very well can be a significant differentiator depending on your role.
Many people are not naturally good at public speaking. Indeed, a lot of people find public speaking nerve-wracking, whether it’s from a small amount of “butterflies in the stomach” to more significant anxiety at the prospect of putting yourself out there in front of a very large audience.
Sure, there are some people for whom public speaking seems to be natural and you can’t imagine they’ve been anything other than the confident and poised presence you see in interviews, onstage or on recordings. But I can guarantee you that most of those people have worked hard at their technique, have improved over time and probably still continue to have some degree of nerves when they are about to do a major event. They manage through that, and often channel that energy to improve their performance. Interestingly, most people who aren’t in any way anxious about these types of activities can sometimes be the worst public-speakers. This could be for many reasons, but not least that they often might be too relaxed and seemingly disengaged, or they may have failed to prepare, which is usually detectable by the audience.
So, a confession. I’ve not always been comfortable at public speaking. Especially in front of large audiences. This might be surprising to those of you who have seen me speak at various events as the feedback I get is that I am on most occasions reasonably good at it. This is as a result of practice and developed technique over many years. I, now, mostly enjoy the prospect and the act of speaking at all types of events. But I still do feel what might be considered the right amount of trepidation for truly major events.
Here’s a short guide to what I’ve found to be the best tips and techniques to develop public speaking and associated presentation skills. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive guide, there are plenty of better sources for that and if you really want to improve your capabilities then it’s best to get some professional, in person, training and coaching.
1. Golden Rule - Be Authentic
There is nothing worse, in my view, than a speaker trying to be someone they’re not. Telling cringe-worthy jokes, impersonating the style of the most recent trite TED Talk they’ve just seen or trying to present like Steve Jobs or other well known figures.
Similarly, it’s also painful to watch someone contort themselves into a degree of stage-managed seriousness at an event that doesn’t really warrant it. Besides, being in a situation where you can’t be yourself adds a layer of complication that can induce nerves or otherwise reduce your effectiveness.
So, be yourself. But be careful about being your total self in all situations. For example, I have a tendency to be a bit flippant, sarcastic and, well, a bit “English” in my sense of humor. This doesn’t work in a lot of cases so I do aim to be my authentic self, but in some cases a bit toned down especially when the humor might be misinterpreted and taken out of context. This is especially true at events where media might be present who, bless them, know that your obviously sarcastic remark when presented seriously in a different context will drive a few clicks.
My old CEO, Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, had a wonderful sense of humor and was very warm and personable (most of the time) but famously came a cropper for this flip comment of “I’m just doing God’s work” at the end of a media interview. This is a pretty common, sardonic, statement used in many circles but in the case of the media interview was deliberately spun in a different context and made out to be a literal comment. Of course, this drove a lot of clicks and attention.
2. Tell Stories
No one said presentations or speeches have to be a certain way. You have a surprising amount of control over how you deliver something. The great thing is that lacing your material with stories, specific anecdotes and other points bring the topic alive. It also more deeply engages the audience and puts you into a more relaxed mode which makes you and hence your content more interesting to the audience.
Confession time again, these stories don’t have to be 100% true. Now, I’m not suggesting you fabricate things to make a point. Rather, a lot of the stories we can recount in security situations are not things that can be shared, and even when anonymized there may be enough to give the situation away which might not be appropriate. But I think it’s ok, analogous to film-makers’ dramatic license, to change a story enough to make it anonymous or otherwise desensitized so it can be used for that purpose. I don’t think this is disingenuous as long as you’re tweaking slightly, not outright fabricating.
Over time, you’ll find you have a mental library of such anecdotes or whole narratives you can call upon in many situations to illustrate your point.
My biggest source of annoyance, and why I’ve long since stopped going to a number of conferences and types of events, are speakers who flat out have simply not prepared.
Now, by this, I don’t mean not rehearsed - which we will discuss later - but literally schlocking out a random talk that doesn’t fit the audience or the venue even to the point of being open about their casual disrespect of the event.
I’ve walked out of several events over the years where a supposed “industry luminary” literally walked on stage and said “I didn’t have time to prepare anything for this but here’s a few thoughts”. Then they proceeded to smugly ramble incoherently about some things.
You all know what preparation is. It’s understanding the event, the audience, taking the other people’s perspective on what they all might want or need to hear, and contextualizing it for that community.
Many of us find it appropriate to give the same talk at a few different events. This is usually for distinct audiences and so, hopefully, it’s rare that someone will have heard me give some of my current talks more than once. But even, on the off-chance that occurs I will prepare some different stories, some different asides and depending on whether it’s a closed event some more “sensitive” points to enliven it. This also means you feel like you are delivering the content fresh even if you might have delivered it several times before.
Of course, this preparation takes time. If you don’t have the time then perhaps reduce your intake of commitments and seek a different work/life balance.
As well as overall preparation, focused rehearsal for the event itself is important. There are two parts to this: leading up to the event and the day of.
Once you’ve prepared your content, whether it’s a deck, a talk, a series of topics and talking points for a live interview, or even points for an unscripted interview then you need to rehearse your delivery. This not only helps your fluidity on the day but it reveals, sometimes dramatically, the initial incoherence of your material. I’ve never had a situation where I haven’t changed a slide deck significantly after the first time I presented to myself in an initial rehearsal.
Then for many events, especially for the most important events, I’ll practice delivering the presentation to myself, sometimes recorded so I can play it back, several times. For some particularly crucial events I might do this 5 - 10 times focusing especially on the opening, the major transition points between sections and the close. I’ll also practice this in my head without the slides when out walking or in other situations to get the needed fluidity for certain sections. This also helps commit key points to memory.
Some people like to rehearse in front of people, perhaps colleagues or others. I tend to not find this that useful, because the feedback you get is often about how they would deliver it as opposed to what is wrong with your delivery. But, certainly, if you can find someone who can give you objective feedback then get that as much as you can. Separately, have others review and comment on your slides or notes.
Don’t forget to scope out the room you will be presenting from to get a feel for the location, the stage environment, and the way the presentation apparatus is configured. Similar preparation is needed for the now common virtual or hybrid events, testing your equipment, and making sure you are presenting from a place of reliable high bandwidth connectivity. Also, if you are doing regular virtual presentations, or even if you are (like most people now) continuing to work remotely some or all of the time then investing in a quality microphone and camera are important.
Remember to prepare some contingency plans in case of presentation equipment failure or other situations. I once delivered a keynote at a conference that had a power cut 30 mins before I was due to go on. It was a pretty large audience (500 or so people) but not so much that it couldn’t be delivered without audio equipment. I’d spent a bit of time preparing to deliver the talk without slides and so I could stand up and do this without much hassle, looking up so as to project my voice enough. What was interesting is the talk was probably more highly rated than it otherwise would have been.
You can also figure out some contingencies in the moment. For example, last year I was due to deliver a guest lecture at a University commemoration event. I had prepared slides. However, the previous speaker to me, a much honored Professor, went totally over time. This was fine, but sitting there in the audience I knew there was no way I could do a 40 min talk in 15 mins and it would have been a real mess to try. So I sat there and mentally prepared 5 major talking points of what I wanted to cover and what sub-points were within those. Then I used that as the structure and just talked on the fly filling in the content. It had an energy and authenticity that my prepared talk probably wouldn’t have conveyed - and I really enjoyed it.
5. Dealing with Nerves and Anxiety
This is a thing for pretty much all people. It’s well known among even the most accomplished speakers, even Oscar-winning actors. As mentioned before, I find many people who are genuinely blasé about public speaking can often be quite uninteresting. The reality is the nerves are what give you energy and helps convey that you really care about what you’re presenting. It also shows you care about the people you are presenting to - which in turn connects you with that audience.
But, for some people sometimes, especially when you’re new to this, the nervousness can detract from your effectiveness. There are techniques to deal with this:
The DARE Response. This is an increasingly well known technique for managing anxiety in day to day life and I’ve seen its positive effect on many people. It’s also effective for nerves related to public speaking whether or not you actually need it in other parts of your life. Essentially it’s is: Diffuse (say to your anxiety, “I hear you”, the theory being is that the fight or flight response which is driving the anxiety kicks into overdrive if you ignore or try to suppress it, but when acknowledged in your mind it can diffuse); Accept (recognize that your nerves are kicking in for a reason: you’re about to do something important, something that will change something, recognize that you might be about to stand in front of 5,000 people and that is not a normal day to day experience. If you didn’t have some nerves then you might be a bit weird, so accept that these nerves are normal); Run Toward (say to yourself, bring it on, give me more anxiety, have that become energy that I’m going to use); Engage (get back to your content that you have rehearsed and remember you’re here doing this thing on a mission no matter how small).
Check Downs. I’ve only had a few coaching sessions on public speaking earlier in my career after I messed up a few events in a row, frankly because of lack of preparation. But one of the techniques this coach taught me was the use of a “check down”. This is a sporting analogy from American Football when a quarter-back is put under pressure or they fail a play then they have a final pre-worked play that gets them and the team to positional safety. Anyway, the check down in public speaking is a few methods pre-worked to use if you get into trouble, like losing your train of thought, a disruptive audience question, or your initial nerves not calming down for whatever reason. Some of these could be pausing and asking the audience for questions, asking the audience for a show of hands in relation to a question you have of them, working in an anecdote that previously you wouldn’t have had time for, even just taking a 5 second break for a sip of water and taking a breath.
Content is King. Always remember, people want to hear what you have to say. If they really don’t then perhaps you should question why you’re presenting it - which is a different problem entirely.
Don’t Apologize. If something goes wrong, if you verbally stumble, if you lose your train of thought, if you feel like you’re not as fluid as you want to be, if you feel nervous and not at the top of your game then don’t apologize. Most people haven’t noticed. Even if they have, they mostly won’t care, especially if you start enjoying yourself in any case.
6. Delivery Tips
When delivering the presentation, speech or other format here are some tips:
Slow Down. I still struggle with this, when I’m engaged and enthusiastic I speak quickly. Sometimes this can distract from the message you are trying to get across and it can reduce the awareness and focus on your key points. So, remember to consciously breathe, take 1-2 seconds between major points, and when you’ve made what you think is a key or an otherwise dramatic point then also stop for a few seconds, look around the room then re-engage with your next content, perhaps re-stating the point for effect.
Weave in Stories. For many if not all of your major points, develop some stories that illustrate the point and then interject those as part of your delivery.
Don’t Read Slides. I know this is obvious, but it’s surprising how many talks are still basically the speaker reading each bullet in sequence (although in some contexts like internal technical briefs this can be effective). Try to reduce text content and don’t read from it. At most use it as a prompt if you need to be reminded what you’re talking about on the slide.
Assume Smarts. Assume the audience is smart, so don’t dumb things down. But, remember the audience might not know your jargon or the theory behind some key points so make sure to explain. This way, you won’t appear patronizing and also you’ll be able to get your point across.
Demos. Demos are great but it’s tough to pull them off well. If you do then 10x the amount of rehearsals. I’ve found that talks that simulate a demo such as by stepping through some visuals either by manual or automated advancing of slides can be just as effective and less risky.
Cultural Sensitivities and Idioms. Now, stripping content of culture specific language is often misconstrued as being done simply for political correctness. Naturally, it is important not to use outdated or frankly offensive terminology. However, one other significant reason here is to get your point across to a global or even local multicultural audience. It might not even be a multicultural issue, for example some people may be just blissfully ignorant of sports idioms (I apologize for the earlier check-down analogy, but I did also explain it). It took me years to understand what calling an audible was, to throw the flag on the field, or throw in the towel. This doesn’t mean certain idioms can’t be used, you just need to select them for audiences and maybe define them on first use.
Manage the Q&A. Many questions at conferences can often be the person wanting to make a point, not ask a question. It’s ok to politely interrupt people who are doing that and try to get them to the point, unless it has some appropriate context. That is to respect the whole audience.
7. Format and Situational Tips
As you get more experienced you can progressively dictate the format you want to use for your speaking engagements or other presentations. These can range from so called “fireside chats” being interviewed by a person, panel discussions to straightforward keynote style delivery. I find that different ones work in different situations and so use your judgment to decide which one to do as opposed to simply doing what the organizers might initially want.
Each different type of venue, context or audience will require some different tips and techniques. Each one of these listed below could be a blog post in its own right, or even a whole book. But for each one I’ll just list what I think are some of the major points to remember
Board Meetings. Prepare materials for pre-read but present like a conversation on the day itself. Make a point that you’re doing this. For example, “I assume you’ve read the materials so I won’t page through them, but here’s the 5 points I want to make….” Then make those points. Research Board members' backgrounds, especially the other Boards they are on and what has been going on with them recently. By doing this I’ve anticipated well over 90% of Board questions over the years.
Large Conference Keynotes. Work to prepare something original or something presented in a new light. Prepare extensively and rehearse your delivery. Respect the time of the 1000’s of people that might be in the audience.
Small Conference Presentation. Design your content and delivery for interaction and include content breaks to enable that. Pause and ask for questions throughout. Be prepared to go significantly off-track but bring it back to make sure you cover your main points.
On the Record Media Interviews. Focus on your key talking points. Don’t be dragged into other topics. Answer the questions in the way you want to, and bring your prepared answers into the context of any of the questions that are asked. But, do make sure to get some specialist media training. Perhaps, refresh this training periodically if you aren’t getting much “live-fire” practice. Journalists will often ask a final question such as, "Is there anything else you want to cover that I didn't ask about?" This is an opportunity to re-make your most important point, so prepare for that.
Live TV. As with other interviews, but especially so here: remember the pivot. That is if they ask you a sensitive question that is off-topic and obviously driven to get a headline-worthy misquote from you then pivot back to what you want to talk about. I remember doing a live TV interview last year and 5 mins before going on air some pretty controversial news broke in the context of my company but not my role. My media team got me a message to make sure I saw this and prepared me to pivot. Sure enough, the question came up pretty much right away, and the answer I gave was, “We’ve got other people working on that issue, but today I’m focused on [topic at hand].......”
Panel Discussion. Even if the panel moderator or organizer is insisting on directing specific questions to each person in turn, or specific questions to specific panelists then it’s necessary to interject. Not to the point of being bad-mannered, but if another panelist sparks a relevant thought, it’s good to interject that briefly. It will make the panel feel less stilted and will encourage the other panelists to do this and so, overall, it will feel like what it is supposed to be - a multi-way conversation.
Panel Moderating. Spend time researching the background of your panelists, try to get to know them a bit and treat the whole event as an extended multi-way conversation. Don’t go from question to question - try and bring people in. For example, if Person A answers a question, and it sparks a thought then ask Person B what they thought of that. This means you have to listen, really listen, and be amazingly present for the whole session. This takes work as you are often tempted to be watching the clock, watching the audience or thinking what your next question is.
Fireside Chats / 1-1 Interviewing. Whether you are the interviewer or the interviewee, do as much as you can to make this a conversation. Treat the goal not as, I ask this question and you give me answer. Rather, structure and treat the goal as a conversation about a few topics and view it as a good thing if you digress and get into other topics. I also find it useful to get into the other person’s personality and broader life beyond their professional work, not to intrude or try and find humor but to connect their wider back story into the conversation as this makes the person and hence the topic more relatable.
Bottom line: public speaking at major events in front of large audiences can be daunting at first. While you will get better at this and any nerves about such events will subside through your career, they will likely never fully dissipate. That’s a good thing as it will give you energy, motivate you to prepare and to actually fundamentally care about what you are doing. The great news is public speaking is a skill that can be developed and improved. If you do this while having respect for your audiences you should find over time that speaking in public no matter how small or large the event will be rewarding and beneficial to your work.